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10 December 2023

Syria's First Lady falling from grace


Not so long ago, she was the darling of the international press, described as a "rose in the desert" and "a ray of light in a country full of shadow zones."

But today, Syria's First Lady is being likened to a modern-day Marie-Antoinette, drawing criticism for staying mum on a crisis that has left more than 5,000 people dead in her country.

The British-born Asma al-Assad, who virtually disappeared from the public eye after the revolt broke out in Syria in mid-March, made a surprise appearance this week to support her husband Bashar as he spoke at a pro-regime rally.

Pictures of the 36-year-old, all smiles with two of her children, adorned the front pages of many Arab and Western newspapers.

"This shows that she is standing by her man, that she and him are on the same page," said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria and former press adviser to local charities run by the First Lady.

"She is clearly part of the regime."

Her appearance, however, has also drawn scathing criticism.

"Bashar's wife and kids cheer on daddy the dictator," one tweet scoffed.

"The British should withdraw Asma Assad's passport and those of her parents as accessories to a war criminal," fumed another.

But the former investment banker continues to attract admiration among supporters of the Assad regime.

"You deserve to be the First Lady of the whole world!" gushed a post on one of the many Facebook pages dedicated to the slim, brown-haired Asma.

Syria's First Lady has emerged as a style icon in the world of politics and has been compared to the likes of Queen Rania of Jordan or France's Carla Bruni, with a reported fondness for Chanel in particular.

Tall, stylish and charismatic, Asma al-Assad is the picture of glamour: in designer outfits and her trademark Christian Louboutin heels, her impeccable British accent and credentials have helped promote the soft side of an iron-fisted regime.

"She was an important part of the public relations of the regime," Tabler said.

"She has an obsession with fashion," he added. "How do you reconcile this princess-like image with one of the poorest countries in the Middle East?"

The daughter of a prominent London-based cardiologist, Fawaz al-Akhras, and a former diplomat, Sahar Otri, Asma is seen as the modern, progressive side of the Assad dynasty, with a degree from King's College in London where she was raised.

Ten years her husband's junior, Asma has welcomed the likes of the Spanish king and queen and Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to her country.

During a 2010 visit to France, Asma told French weekly Paris Match that she had married Bashar for the "values" he embodied.

Fashion magazine Vogue even ran a glowing interview with her before the outbreak of the revolt, describing Asma as the "most magnetic of first ladies," but later removed the article from its website.

Bashar's rise to power more than a decade ago symbolised the hope for change in a country long isolated internationally.

Once a banker with J.P. Morgan, Asma herself is credited with having played a significant role in liberalising the Syrian economy.

But the Syrian revolt has dealt a serious blow to the image of a young, modern couple who captured the attention of press and public opinion around the world.

"This image has been destroyed," said Tabler. "She has a sort of quietly domineering personality and she is a very proper person, very British.

"She has a British passport. So she could go. She is not trapped."

Bashar and Asma for years have been viewed as a symbol of coexistence in multi-confessional Syria. While the president is a minority Alawite, Asma is a Sunni Muslim who originally hails from Homs -- bastion of the current anti-Assad revolt.

But as the death toll in Syria tops 5,000, many find the pair increasingly out of touch with reality.

In a 2009 interview with CNN, the honey-eyed Asma slammed Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip as "barbaric" and, "as a mother and as a human being," called for an end to the violence.

"This is the 21st century. Where in the world could this happen? Unfortunately it is happening," she said in a calm, soft voice.

Now her own words have come back to haunt her.

"Stop being a hypocrite! You are slaughtering your own people!" one YouTube commenter recently wrote beneath the video.

Another summed it up in two words: "Lady Macbeth."